SPARTA, Ky. — Matt Kenseth has raced long enough to know rough starts can have good outcomes — especially when his crew chief takes a chance.
Case in point was Kenseth's fuel-only pit stop gamble that helped him beat Jimmie Johnson and win the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway on Sunday.
A NASCAR race that was Johnson's to lose ultimately became Kenseth's series-high fourth victory of the season — third on a 1½-mile track — when crew chief Jason Ratcliff passed on putting new tires on the No. 20 Toyota after the race's ninth caution.
"I thought he was slightly crazy when that happened," said Kenseth, who widened his lead when the field went four-wide after the restart on Lap 246. "I didn't think there was any way that we were going to hold on for that win."
Kenseth led twice for 38 laps, including the final 23. Johnson, the Sprint Cup points leader, spun soon after the restart and finished ninth. He remained the points leader by 38 over Carl Edwards, who finished 21st.
The restart bothered Johnson, who accused Kenseth of breaking the pace car speed. But Johnson, who led three times for 182 of 267 laps, took solace in salvaging his 11th top-10 despite being sandwiched in the logjam that could have been worse.
"We were kind of in an awkward situation in that restart," he said. "Unfortunate, but at least we rallied back for a good finish."
Second was Jamie McMurray followed by Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch.
The race was red-flagged on Lap 49 after a seven-car wreck involving defending series champion Brad Keselowski. He finished 33rd and fell from ninth to 13 in points.
Keselowski was near the top 10 when Kurt Busch's car went low, came back up the track and into his left rear quarter-panel. Busch apologized, and Keselowski seemed to accept it.
"I'm still wrecked," he said. "He's smarter than that. He knows better than that."
Kenseth finished seventh at Kentucky last year and sixth in the 2011 inaugural race. But victory didn't seem likely after qualifying 16th and running outside the top 20 during the first quarter of the race. "I thought our first run, we were all right. And … after the second run, we were able to move forward pretty good," he said. "I felt pretty good about what we had."
From then on, Kenseth was near the front. Trouble was, he and others seemed to need Johnson to suffer misfortune to have any shot.
Instead, Kenseth needed to rely on the left-side tires Ratcliff ordered the previous stop. Taking fuel only the final time gave him the lead coming off pit road, and the tires held up.
"I thought it was worth a shot to get out there," Ratcliff said. "When we rolled off pit road and saw what everybody did, I looked to the guy beside me and I'm like, 'I can't believe we are the only ones that did that.' "